Whelan & Dealin’

Ben Whelan

Patriot’s fans, I think it’s about time to press the panic button. No, not just because they have lost the last two games (the first time they’ve suffered consecutive losses since 2002) to arch-nemesis Peyton Manning and the Colts and to a hapless Jets team in a divisional game. What really leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth is that this teams capabilities are so far removed from those of the teams that brought us three championships in four years. Those teams were built around a dominating defense and the steady quarterbacking of a young Tom Brady, but those two areas, which had been our greatest strengths in past years, are no longer good enough to carry the team by themselves. This team may be 6-3 entering week 10, but they have yet to register a win over an impressive opponent and have lost to the only two teams they played that can be considered legitimate title contenders in the AFC. How they play against the Chicago Bears, a team on the decline but still amongst the class of the NFL, will reveal a lot about this teams chances for the playoffs and beyond.

At one point talked about as one of the best quarterbacks ever, Tom Brady’s play this year has brought even some of the most ardent Brady supporters back to earth. No one can really account for the drop in his level of play, how this once hall of fame lock can no longer be really discussed as one of the all time greats at his position. One need only to glance at the quarterbacks numbers to gauge Brady’s level of play this year. Always hailed for his decision-making skills and efficiency, Brady has a very pedestrian passer rating of 83.7-good enough for eleventh best in the NFL. Over the last two games against the porous defenses of Indianapolis and the Jets, Brady has thrown only one touchdown against five interceptions. In addition, last years passing yards leader has thrown for only 2054 yards going into week 10 of the season, putting him at a respectable tenth place among the NFL league leaders. That is, until you figure in that Brady is completing only 59.2% percent of his passes (21st in the NFL), backing up the evidence on film indicating that Brady has been inconsistent at best but has managed to hit some big plays. It also helps when you throw for almost four hundred yards against a Viking’s team that apparently decided to test the theory that stopping the run is so much more important than playing pass defense that covering a receiver is just too much to worry about. Does this sound like the resume of the Tom Brady we once new and revered?

Fine, if you don’t really believe in the numbers approach, just watch the guy play and pay specific attention to how his receivers catch the ball. Any time you see a great, acrobatic catch or a receiver not quite being able to adjust enough to catch a ball just remember the old football adage that every great catch is the product of a bad throw, because if it was a good throw the receiver wouldn’t have to try so hard and the catch would look easy.

The other major problem this year has been pass defense, specifically on third down. Any coach will tell you that the success of a team is very dependant on how they play on third down. As a defense your ability to stop a team on third down is a key factor in deciding the outcome of the game, as oftentimes converting a third down gives an opposing offense three more chances to score or continue a drive, a luxury which any offense in today’s NFL will quickly capitalize on. Needless to say, teams spend a great deal of time paying attention to third down situations, both practicing their own responses to the situation as well as studying those of their opponents. One immediate warning sign about the state of the Patriots defense is that their unit is currently twentieth in the league in third down defense, allowing opposing offenses to convert 39.5% of their opportunities. While this isn’t a cause for alarm by itself, looking at the Patriots last five games (Colts, Jets, Vikings, Bills, Dolphins) with specific regard to third down defense, a very clear and disturbing theme begins to emerge. Of the twenty-one successful third down conversions of more than one yard against the Patriots in these games, eighteen have been by the pass. Add to this the fact that fifteen of these eighteen passes were thrown from the shotgun formation, a formation which is designed to give the quarterback maximum time to pick apart a defense but has the drawback of telegraphing the offense’s intention to pass, and a very disheartening image of the Patriots coverage begins to emerge. In essence, team’s have come to the conclusion that when they have to pick up important yardage against the Patriots they are significantly more likely to be successful using the pass than the run, even when the Patriots have a pretty good idea what is coming. So far this strategy has been working spot on, and unless some changes are made, expect to see a lot of shotgun on third down directly followed by the sound of moving chains.

I’m not saying that the season is over, as the Patriots are doing very well in the areas of the game that traditionally mean the most come playoff time, running the ball (7th best rush offense in the NFL) and stopping the run (4th best rush defense in the NFL). Unfortunately these aren’t your older brothers Patriots for whom the playoffs were guaranteed and ring sizes were being recorded in mid-October. If the quarterback cant once again claim his place among the games all time greats and the defense cant get off the field on third downs, the Patriots will be spending their February preparing for the Red Sox season by learning how to say “overpaid” in Japanese like the rest of us.